The MV-Liemba on Lake Tanganyika last year.
Alexandre Kauffmann

KIGOMA â€" The outline of the MV-Liemba looms on the horizon. The oldest ferry in the world drops anchor off the coast of Kagunga, a Tanzanian village just three miles from Burundi’s border. Around 600 Burundian passengers are subsequently brought on board after arriving from the shore on small fishing boats. The MV-Liemba will steam off in the direction of Kigoma, its home port in Tanzania, some 25 miles away.

No downtime is allowed: Kagunga’s humanitarian crisis has grown worse over the years with the massive influx of migrants. The village has faced constant water shortages, as well as multiple health epidemics. More than 50,000 refugees have already landed in Kagunga since the beginning of political tensions in Burundi after Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza announced in April that he will be running for a third term in apparent violation of the constitution. A failed coup attempt and violent demonstrations have left at least 20 people dead.

Amidst the unrest, is the unlikely latest chapter in the 102-year history of the MV-Liemba, which the representative of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Joyce Mends-Cole says has played a "crucial role" in responding to the humanitarian fallout of the political crisis. As rugged mountain ranges prevent migrants from going safely on foot to the safety of southern Tanzania, the boat must be used instead.

“The MV-Liemba enables us to evacuate 1200 people a day to Kigoma,” Mends-Cole adds.

It is not the first time that the MV-Liemba has been in the middle of a conflict. It was built in 1913, on the eve of World War I, as a battleship to ensure German domination on Lake Tanganyika. At the time, the German Empire was ruled by Kaiser Wilhelm II and controlled a territory which today corresponds with Rwanda, Burundi and the continental part of Tanzania. The boat was named Graf von Goetzen after German East Africa’s first Governor.

The warship started to patrol in 1915: it served to transport personnel and launch surprise attacks against the Allies. The following year, German Army General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck ordered the Graf von Goetzen to be scuttled below the surface to keep it from falling into enemy’s hands. The ship's engineers covered the engines of the boat with a thick layer of grease to facilitate a potential raising after the end of the conflict.

Broken but still afloat

After its intentional sinking to a depth of 20 meters near the banks of Katabe Bay, the ship was relaunched by the Belgians in the port of Kigoma in 1918, only to be flooded by a storm two years later. After having taken control of Kigoma, the United Kingdom raised the wreck once more in 1927. The boat was renamed MV-Liemba and became a simple ferry that escorted passengers and goods on Lake Tanganyika.

British writer Cecil Scott Forester was inspired by this unusual fate and wrote a novel called The African Queen published in 1935, set during World War I. The book describes the encounter between an aging boorish Englishman of adventure and a rather uptight 30-year-old woman. Of course they end up falling in love and embark upon a daring undertaking: to sink a German gunboat, which is the spitting image of the Graf von Goetzen.

The Graf von Goetzen in 1915 â€" Photo: Arche-foto

The MV-Liemba remains etched in some people’s memories mostly thanks to the book’s screen adaptation, directed by John Huston in 1951 and starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, in which Bogart won an Oscar.

“The MV-Liemba definitely needs to be refurbished today,” notes Tanzanian Captain Titus Mnvani, who has been at the helm of the ferry for more than two decades. “This boat is broken down but still essential. It is a source of supply for three million villagers living around Lake Tanganyika. All these people would be cut off from the outside world without us."

Mnvani says he's witnessed many pregnant women departing for Kigoma’s hospital who have giving birth in the gangway. "I keep helping them, so I ended up learning basic notions of obstetrics!,” he quips.

When the United Nations does not request its services for humanitarian emergencies, the former warship ferries twice a month from Kigoma to Mpulungu, a Zambian town located in the southern portion of the lake. It covers 280 miles punctuated by 15 ports of call. Twenty years ago, it had a very different route, starting in Burundi, through Tanzania and Zambia, before stopping at the main ports of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The violence (civil wars and genocides) that overwhelmed the African Great Lake region at the beginning of the 1990’s put an end to this itinerary. “We quickly avoided Africa’s zones of conflict,” Captain Titus explains. “Armed Congolese militias regularly stormed the MV-Liemba with grenades and Kalashnikovs.”

Uncertain future

Today, when it is not transporting refugees, MV-Liemba is always a few hours â€"even sometimes several days â€" late; and its delayed arrival inevitably causes rumors that it has sunk again.

Many different characters can be seen aboard: a tax collector with a stammer writing romance novels rubs shoulders with foulmouthed Congolese merchants. The aroma of mangos, spices and hot oil come from the holds. The siren rings out. Dhows quickly cast off. When the ferry, alluminated by the oil lamps of the small boats, gets closer to the villages in the middle of the night, it looks like a ghost ship emerging from the past. As if the MV-Liemba had the power to reverse the current order of centuries…

Passengers can see eclectic landscapes along the way: Mahale Mountains, the town of Kipili and its lush greenery, Manda’s paradise island with a water so pure that it cannot be drunk… After two days of crossing, the boat finally arrives to Mpulungu. MV-Liemba’s Captain should not remain there for too long: port charges run very high and the ferry has operated at a loss since 2010…

Then what is the future of this floating legend? Tanzanian authorities are seeking funding to exchange this historical boat for a new one. In the meantime, several associations argue over MV-Liemba’s next calling, including one campaigning for its conversion into a luxury hotel or a tourist boat. Another wishes it to be repatriated to Papenburg where it was built and turned it into a museum.

As for the UN's Joyce Mends-Cole, she is just pleased that this century-old ship is still able to float, to bring families from Burundi to safer ground. But she notes yet another regret for the trouble tides of history: “MV-Liemba used to be used for bringing Burundians back into their country. Sadly the situation is reversed today.”

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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